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I’ve always loved fashion. As a young girl growing up in Japan, I drew outfits and gowns and thought that someday I might become a clothing designer. We all had dressmakers there, and my mom and I would pick out designs we liked in fashion magazines and have them made for us. Planning ahead what outfits to wear and accessorize was so much fun.
How things have changed. My day-to-day informal uniform consists of jeans, shorts, tees, and Teva sandals, with the occasional flight suit. So, what happened?! I chose a life of flying airplanes. Gone from my regular wardrobe are the cute skirts and platform shoes, dangling bracelets, long necklaces and big earrings. My casual outfits today are simple and functional because I have dug many an earring out of the fuselage and had more than one long necklace whack me in the face when I rolled upside down. I can’t feel the rudder pedals with heels or big boots, and if I wear a leather belt when I’m flying aerobatics, it will dig into my hips when I tighten my seat belt.
Unless you’re lucky enough to be sitting in the back of a GV, there just doesn’t seem to be room in aviation for anything other than a uniform or comfortable clothes — which leads me to the question: Is there a place for fashion in aviation?
It might seem ironic, but it is interesting that the nature of aviation has influenced form and fashion for over a century. In a paper by Dr. Graham Rood in the Journal of Aeronautical History, “A Brief History of Flying Clothing,” Dr. Rood writes, “From the earliest days of flight, the aviator has needed some form of personal protection against the elements. The earliest form was a good tweed jacket, a hat and a pair of goggles; as the technology of aviation developed — flying faster, higher and longer — better and differing levels of protection were required.” Aviation demands a simplicity of form that is functional, wearable while flying and, most of all, designed with safety in mind.
Aviator style has real and not whimsical roots because it’s always been about form following function. Starting with the Wright brothers and their semi-formal flying wear, it has extended to watches, bomber jackets, flight suits, epaulets and sunglasses. Early aviators had to adapt by finding comfortable and safe ways to fly; they couldn’t very well have loose clothing billowing in the wind in open-cockpit airplanes. Early woman aviators had to wear pants, and perhaps this set a trend for the modern woman.
Dashing aviators like Alberto Santos-Dumont influenced fashion icons like Louis Cartier. When Santos-Dumont came to him in 1904 asking for a watch he could use while flying so he didn’t have to fumble in his pocket for a pocket watch, Cartier designed a watch with a wrist strap for him, and the wristwatch was born. Santos-Dumont wore the watch every time he flew and was often photographed with it for the newspapers, making the design glamorous and desirable. In fact, from 1911 until today, making a statement, the Santos de Cartier design wristwatch can be found in every one of Cartier’s 300 stores.
During WWI, new clothing designs emerged for the aviator, all designed to protect pilots from the elements, including tall sheepskin-lined “Fug” boots, leather flying suits, helmets and goggles. Between wars, fashion was influence by record setters and barnstormers like Roscoe Turner. Turner, whose flair and style is legendary, barnstormed across the Southeast United States wearing an Army-style uniform of his own design with fawn-colored jodhpurs, riding boots and a beige officer cap, and added a silver-winged brooch and fancy belt. Turner was even sponsored by a clothing company (why haven’t I thought of that!). Ever the showman, Turner’s best accessory was probably Gilmore the Flying Lion (who is carefully preserved, stuffed and refrigerated at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and, yes, I have seen it).
In 1936, Bausch & Lomb designed Ray-Bans, aviator sunglasses to replace the then-outdated flight goggles that pilots used to protect their eyes. The dark, reflective lenses were designed to have an area two to three times the size of an eyeball and attempted to cover the entire range of the human eye to prevent as much light as possible from entering the eye from any angle. It sure didn’t hurt that General Douglas MacArthur landed on the beach in the Philippines in WWII photographed in dramatic poses sporting a pair of Ray-Bans. MacArthur is credited for popularizing the wearing of sunglasses by the general public.
With her short hair and sporty look, Amelia Earhart redefined America’s image of a successful career woman. Trailblazer and trendsetter, she was also one of the first celebrities to create her own fashion line. Her fashion designs for “active living” had a casual and practical look that is popular today. Fashion-forward Earhart introduced separates to women of the 1930s, which allowed them to mix and match tops and bottoms, instead of the one-size-fits-all mold of dresses available at the time, and she introduced blouses with longer shirttails, a feature that was exclusive to men’s fashion at the time. In The Quotable Amelia Earhart, Earhart says, “I made up my mind that if the wearers of the shirts I designed for any reason took time out to stand on their heads, there would still be enough shirt to still stay tucked in!” And speaking of girls and fashion, Barbie, one of fashion’s most enduring icons, has recently announced an Amelia Earhart Barbie doll.
Early airline pilots were often ex-military and adopted the look of leather bomber jackets with oversized front pockets to allow easy access to charts, scarves to keep their necks protected, khaki trousers, and short black or brown boots, but things started changing in the early 1930s. When Pan Am began its South American routes using the big Clipper flying “boats,” it decided to change their flight crews’ uniforms to reflect a more “naval” look in order to allow nervous passengers to feel more confident. Pan Am then introduced black pants, black double-breasted blazers with sleeve braid loops on the lower sleeves denoting crew member rank, and white officer-style hats with gold or silver insignia. And, by the way, epaulets that airline pilots wear today probably came from the 17th century, when Louis XIV wore shoulder ribbons, which then established the basic design of the epaulet as it evolved through the 18th and 19th centuries, when they indicated rank. Today the familiar four stripes indicate that this is your captain speaking.
When you want to look stylish when flying, whatever you wear needs to be functional. When I’m flying cross-country, the rules are less about looking good than about being prepared for different climates and temperatures. The golden rule is: layers, layers and, sometimes, more layers. Even when it’s a tropical 95 degrees and rising on the ground, it can get really cold when climbing up to 10K to get over towering cumulus, so I wear long pants, shoes and socks (vs. sandals), and a jacket of some sort. Depending on what type of airplane I am flying, I may or may not have a heater or the ability, when flying an aerobatic airplane, for example, to reach back and grab something warmer. In cooler months, I love wearing a military flight suit that keeps me warm, and, oh, those pockets. Being prepared also means I always have a down jacket stuffed somewhere in the back of the airplane, too. When I get to my destination, one thing I love is my camo cargo shorts – so functional and hide oil and dirt. That said, did you know that in some places it’s illegal to wear camo? Camo is illegal in Barbados, Jamaica, Zambia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, so when you’re traveling to those countries, leave your camo behind or fear the literal fashion police. I also think overalls are the cutest and most utilitarian clothing ever designed and wear them a lot. They also have a long and hallowed place in aviation. From an article on the history of RAF clothing: “In many photographs of the inter-war period, particularly at air-displays, RAF flying teams are seen dashingly dressed in a white overall. These were issued to RAF pilots for air-displays and were used as a ‘mark of status’ up to late 1940 for all of those who had flown in those formative days.”
When arriving at an airshow, a performer needs to look like one, though like all professional pilot uniforms, the attire has to be simple and functional, making it easy to work around airplanes while still looking good. Out go the overalls, and it’s Nomex flight suits, logo shirts, tailored shorts and nice clothes for meet and greets. The women can glam it up a bit with sparkly earrings and shoelaces but, for me, my jewelry is usually layers of armbands required for gate and VIP tent access…and a good pedicure.
What about airshow spectator fashion? I see photos of fashionistas at music festivals like Coachella, and boy, do they look cute—the girls in trendy cut-off shorts, peasant shirts, big hats, little boots. But the look doesn’t necessarily work at an airshow, where walking around an airport looking at and watching airplanes all day demands a different functionality: comfortable shoes or sandals, a hat that will stay on in the wind and the best accessory of all—sunblock!
It’s hard to deny aviation style’s influence on fashion—from sunglasses to watches, bomber jackets, cargo pants, even fur-lined boots—and the attractiveness of form following function. I still love looking at fashion magazines and glamming it up for a big event, but I love the simplicity of not having a lot of fashion choices when I wake up in the morning. My best fashion accessories? My shades, my ball cap, my sunblock and, of course, my airplane.